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Star researcher in stem cells and neuroscience is new professor at AU Viborg

Vanessa Hall has taken on the position as a professor at the Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences at AU Viborg. Here, she will focus on research in neuroscience and the development of cultured meat, as well as teaching students in the new veterinary program at AU Viborg.

Photo: Kristina Wulff

Vanessa Hall holds a Ph.D. in the cloning technique "somatic cell nuclear transfer" from Monash University in Australia. She has an impressive and broad professional background in embryology, stem cell research, neuroscience, and innovative food technology. Experiences that she brings with her, along with her ambitions and innovative working methods, into her professorship at the Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences (ANIVET).

Vanessa Hall, who grew up in Australia, has lived in Sweden for almost two decades, where she still resides with her husband and children. Her journey began with a Ph.D. in Australia followed by postdocs in both the UK and Sweden, where she has been involved in groundbreaking stem cell and neuroscientific research, among other things.

Her career later led her to the University of Copenhagen, where she has worked on a range of innovative research projects, including the latest project aimed at creating "clean meat" by culturing meat from embryonic stem cells. Here, Vanessa Hall leads a team experimenting with culturing meat from bovine embryonic stem cells, which has the potential to revolutionize the way we view meat production and sustainability. It is a research project that aims to explore alternative methods of creating meat that are more sustainable and ethically defensible, and Vanessa Hall will lead the project until 2026.

In addition to the cultured meat project, Vanessa Hall has also been deeply interested in neuroscience in her research. Her focus is particularly on understanding the brain's cells and their role in diseases such as Alzheimer's. The dream has been to uncover why a certain part of the brain is an area where Alzheimer’s disease first starts and to determine what may be the underlying cause of the disease. Since Alzheimer’s disease is not seen in other animals Vanessa Hall and her colleagues have spent a lot of time in understanding what are differences and similarities in the brains of humans and other species.

The smelly path to a bone collection

The professorship at AU Viborg entails that Vanessa Hall will both spend her time on research and teaching. This means that she is now in the process of building the new veterinary program at AU Viborg together with the other professors at ANIVET. Here she will be teaching future students Anatomy and Histology.

One of the challenges with the brand-new program is that everything must be built from scratch. For example, AU Viborg lacks a collection of animal bones, which other veterinary programs have built up over many years and which are essential in the education of future veterinarians.

Therefore, one of Vanessa Hall's tasks is to acquire animal bones for her anatomy teaching. It is a big task, but it also gives the visionary professor the opportunity to do things in her own innovative way.

"I love it because I'm realizing that I can actually do things a little differently from the traditions already in place at other Institutions," says Vanessa Hall.

When acquiring bones, you can either buy them or "make" them yourself by removing the tissue around the bones by boiling them or through biological processes. In fact, ANIVET have been able to buy a number of 3D printed skeletons which are excellent in quality, but the researchers will also be making skeletons themselves. Boiling the bones is the easiest and least smelly method. However, looking at the country's museums, which are experts in preservation, there is a lot to learn according to the professor:

"Their techniques are very different from what I'm used to. Some of the procedures smell more as they involve bacteria, but they result in the creation of high-quality bones that last year after year. We will use a slightly less smelly approach which includes enzymatic treatment but still retains high quality bones from the process".

Safety and innovation go hand in hand

Bones are an important part of the veterinary education because future veterinarians will naturally encounter broken animal bones as part of their future work. And of course, it is important to know how they look and fit together as well as how they contribute to locomotion and movement. Therefore, as one of the first things in the anatomy subject, students will work with a dog skeleton to learn all the bones' names as well as get to know the bones of production animals and the many differences between species.

Since animals can't tell where it hurts, they can be more difficult to diagnose. Therefore, understanding the entire anatomy of the animal is an important part of the process for correct diagnosis and treatment. ANIVET will offer cross-comparative animal dissections in Anatomy in a wide range of species including poultry, but professors will also offer living exercises where the students can learn anatomy from getting close to and observing living animals.

Another thing that Vanessa Hall, along with her colleagues at ANIVET, must address is the ongoing need for animals so that students can learn anatomy through animal dissections. This requires establishing cooperation with local animal clinics, where people can consent to donating their deceased pets for research and education of future veterinarians.

Therefore, ANIVET has developed a brochure and a consent form that will be available at the region’s veterinary clinics and hopefully arouse interest among some of the pet owners in the clinics.

"There is all sorts of paperwork that need to be in place before we launch the donation program, and we need permissions to collect and transport the animals," explains Vanessa Hall.

Once the animals have arrived at the laboratory at AU Viborg, they must be preserved and stored well until they are needed. Here, too, Vanessa Hall has some ideas on how to do this a little differently.

Traditional techniques for preserving animals involve some very harsh and toxic chemicals that are very good at fixing tissue but also require extremely good ventilation to not be outright dangerous to work with. One alternative is to use alcohol, but Vanessa Hall wants to go a step further:

"We want to use something even safer, so we actually will preserve the animals with salt. Here, the animal is drained of all blood, which is replaced with salt water that seeps into the tissue. It takes several hours, but when complete, the body is completely preserved," says Vanessa Hall.

The dead animals are then stored in a salt bath from which they can be taken out, worked with, and then put back in, explains the newly appointed professor:

"It's a very safe procedure, that makes animal dissections safe for our students and staff. I'm very excited to try it".